THE Australian Government’s Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that 3000 Australians each year die because of urban air pollution, with the health costs from mortality alone estimated at up to $24 billion annually.
The most severe effects, in terms of overall health burden, are linked to long-term exposure to high levels of particulate matter, in coarse or fine form.
For two decades the government has required industry to provide data on 93 toxic pollutants emitted into the air, water and land, with the collated data available to the public via the National Pollutant Inventory.
The “desired environmental outcomes” of the NPI program, according to the government, are to “maintain and improve air and water quality, minimise environmental impacts associated with hazardous waste and improve the sustainable use of resources”.
They are commendable aims, but early submissions to a 20-year review of the NPI have questioned whether it is doing anything more than provide industry-reported data, with some of it unreliable at that.
Environmental Justice Australia – a non-profit legal centre – has been a long-time user, but also a regular critic, of the NPI and is one of the first to make its submission public with the aim of sparking community debate about the pollution around us.
The EJA acknowledges there is at least data available. But if the data is not linked to regulatory action it asks what is the point? It says Australian states are not using the NPI data to crack down on heavy polluters like power stations and coal mines which in NSW are concentrated in the Hunter. It says it’s time for the Australian Government to establish a national pollution regulator with “teeth” to protect communities from the impacts of industry.
The Minerals Council of Australia says industry is already burdened with NPI reporting requirements, but concedes some NPI data is unreliable because of the way it is collated. It rejects the need for increased regulation. If governments were serious about protecting communities they would highlight pollution from “diffuse sources” like vehicles and domestic heaters, it said.
Data is useful to monitor the pollution threats around us, but without being comprehensive, reliable and backed by regulatory action, it isn’t much more than words and figures.